Does it matter that a believer is absent from assembly gatherings? Most would answer with a resounding yes! Being absent does matter, but maybe for different reasons than we think. Absenteeism from assembly gatherings is a symptom of bigger problems that lie, often unnoticed, beneath the surface. In medical terms, it’s the open sore but not the underlying disease. In business terms, it’s the excuse why the deal was never signed, but it’s not the real reason for failure.
Too often, we, as elders, treat absenteeism as something that is primarily due to a problem with an individual believer rather than with the assembly itself. We may assume that it is only the absent believer that needs to experience positive change.
Elders can take action in areas that lie under their control in order to remove potential barriers to enthusiastic attendance. Instead of pointing our finger at the “wandering” sheep, perhaps the local under-shepherds ought to investigate if there are systemic issues that are driving away the sheep. As we balance biblical, individual and corporate priorities, we should also ask, “Is our assembly a place where believers want to gather together?” If we don’t know the believer’s answer to that question, we should make inquiry.
The words of Ezekiel 34:2-6 are tremendously challenging and should weigh heavily on our hearts: “Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts. My sheep were scattered; they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them” (ESV).
How searching! The sheep are scattered! Why? Systemic conditions in the flock are pushing them away. Lack of food. Lack of feeding. Lack of care. Lack of love. Too much mistreatment. Too many rules. Too much force. With that, they’re gone, and no one seeks their return.
It would be wise for leadership groups in assemblies to evaluate their practices to see if they are hurting or helping the goal of overcoming absenteeism. Let’s ask ourselves some very searching questions.
1. Is the assembly a safe space?
Has our preference for formality killed a spirit of acceptance? Do we comment on what believers wear but not on what they say? Are there expectations of external conformity that take precedence over spiritual wholeness? We ought to create a positive atmosphere where a person’s character can be respected, though their theology may be examined.
Can believers trust us with personal information? Do elders trust each other? Nothing breaks trust faster than breaking confidentiality. Can we expect believers to be honest with others if they suspect that the secret burdens they share will be broadcast? Believers will want to attend gatherings where they feel safe.
2. Are we providing a vision for the believers in our assembly?
What are we trying to achieve with our weekly schedule of gatherings? Has that question ever been asked in our leadership meetings? Perhaps we assume everyone already knows. Do believers understand the purpose of the assembly in the context of the Great Commission? There is grave danger when believers go through the motions, attending meeting after meeting without being invested in the process. Are we offering hope to rising generations by involving them in decision making, operational plans, gospel activities and mentorship? Believers want to be part of a group with a future.
3. Do we practice non-biblical discipline?
The relevant passages of Matthew 18, 1 Corinthians 5, and 1 Timothy 5 provide significant guidance to elders with respect to discipline. While leadership ought to take local reputation and circumstances into account, the Scriptures do not necessarily demand the automatic excommunication of a repentant believer who has come forward with confession. If our methods cause public humiliation to those who have voluntarily disclosed sin in their life, how will that encourage true confession and honesty in others? Believers burdened with guilt will be more likely to hide their sin and stop attending meetings instead of coming forward to confess and experience the restoration they need and crave. Believers want to be part of a group where fellowship is real, not a façade.
4. Are our teachers qualified to teach?
Believers ought to be thrilled and challenged by the truth of Scripture as it is presented by Spirit-led brothers who themselves have felt the weight of the teaching. Substantial damage is being caused to younger believers who leave “Bible Readings” confused by the incoherence of ungifted brothers who are offered a platform to talk. If needed, cancel open-discussion meetings in favour of a more structured Teaching Meeting that removes unprofitable contributions and develops the speaker’s abilities. Elders should also provide meaningful feedback to those who teach. If we do not ensure the effective exposition of the Word in our assembly, the internet is only too happy to offer a convoluted mess of doctrine to the spiritually hungry soul. Believers want to attend meetings where spiritual food is abundant.
5. How do we demonstrate care to our fellow believers?
We traditionally interpret Acts 2:42 (“they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine”) as referring to assembly operational procedures and theological positions. However, the vast majority of the apostles’ writings instructed believers how to interact with others according to the commandment of the Lord: “Love one another.” Love is the essence of the apostles’ doctrine! While we have half of one verse to suggest we should remember the Lord on a Sunday morning, we have many verses that tell us how to love others. Believers want to be in a place where they are loved, and are crying out for true Christ-like affection.
Overseers should take courage and think differently about the problem of absenteeism, which can often be a symptom of systemic issues in the assembly. Believers will be present at the gatherings of an assembly if they are safe from unwarranted criticism, excited for the future, accepted through confession, fed with truth and loved unconditionally. Are there changes we need to make in our assembly to make it a place where believers want to be?